With help, Plan N.H. team 're-imagines' Laconia

LACONIA — After hosting three design charettes last Friday, Plan N.H., a volunteer team of architects, engineers and planners, capped its contribution to the effort to the Planning Department's enterprise to "Reimagine Laconia" by presenting its suggestions to some 15 interested residents at the Grace Capital Church on Saturday afternoon.

Drawing on information gathered during the charettes, the team addressed each of three busineses "villages" composing the city — downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs — confining its vision to central elements of each. The team is in the process of preparing maps, including overlays of existing conditions, to illustrate its findings.

Dowtown, the team stressed calming the traffic and catering to pedestrians on both Beacon Street East and Beacon Street West. Beacon Street East, they suggested could be narrowed to a single lane of vehicles and a narrower lane for bicycles. At the same time, so-called bump-outs could be installed at pedestrian crossings, which by increasing the visibility of both the crossing and pedestrians would enhance safety. The street lights, which are currently more appropriate to a highway, could be lowered to match those on Main Street, creating a more urban ambence.

The team suggested breaking Becacon Street West near the intersection with Water Street where it would take a right angle turn toward Main Street then turn south to the Main Street Bridge. The reconfigured streetscape, they said, would create space for small shops facing Beacon Street West, which now looks on to the backs of stores on Main Street. Likewise, the team foresaw developing a portion of the City Hall parking lot by lining Beacon Street East, north of Hanover Street, with retail space.

At Weirs Beach, the team envisioned a destination hotel on the lot fat the corner of Endicott Street North and Lakeside Avenue overlooking the sign, formerly occupied by a waterslide. They encouraged completion of the WOW Trail from downtown through The Weirs to Meredith. The parking lot at Endicott Rock, they suggested, could be replaced with grassed park and a picnic pavilion and the connection between the beach and the Weirs Community Park over the Weirs Channel Bridge could be improved. The plan emphasized moving parking to the perimeter and enhancing the walkability of the center of Weirs Beach.

In Lakeport, the team concentrated on Lakeport Square, especially with proposals to improve the safety of pedestrians navigating the junction from all directions. Noting that the dearth of parking is a major concern of business owners, they suggested businesses operating at different hours be encouraged to share parking spaces. But they also decried the overall amount of asphalt in the area and recommended the dedication of a portion of the large Lake Opechee Inn & Spa parking lot to additional retail (canoe rentals, etc.) and a more direct connection to the lake itself.

Assistant Planner Brandee Loughlin said the results of the design charettes will be be incorporated into the land use chapter of the Master Plan.

Meanwhile, the Community Opportunities Group of Boston, which is contributing to the economic development section of the Master Plan, also met with residents on Saturday to discuss four major themes — identity and branding, entrepreneurship, workforce training and recruitment and strengthening existing businesses. Much of the emphasis fell on defining the unique identity of the community and fashioning a persuasive that would enable the city to market its assets and opportunities to potential entrepreneurs and investors.

Laconia Fire Department offices temporarily relocated to Opechee Park

LACONIA — The administrative offices of the Fire Department have begun operating from the Opechee Park House at 915 North Main Street, where Fire Chief Ken Erickson expects they will remain for approximately six weeks.

The offices are open to the public on weekdays, Monday through Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. excluding holidays. Except for emergencies, all business with the department, other than emergencies, such as seeking permits, scheduling inspections and other questions, will be conducted at the administrative offices, which can be reached at 524-6881.

Those needing to speak with a member of the Fire Department outside of normal business hours can call 524-6881 or visit the Central Fire Station and as long as there is someone at the station, they will provide assistance.

As always, in the event of an emergency In an emergency, dial 911.

The offices were relocated to facilitate renovation of the nearby Central Fire Station and Chief Ken Erickson said the department appreciates the understanding and patience of the public during this period. He also expressed gratitude to Coach Craig Kozens and member of the Laconia High School football team for assisting the department in moving the offices.

Service animals said needed but many agree fraud issue has become real problem

LACONIA — When 4th Circuit Court Judge Jim Carroll ruled last week that a Laconia man would not be evicted from his no-pets-allowed apartment because his niece had a "comfort" cat, he may have touched on a growing controversy in the United States.

Carroll ruled that even though the apartment owners have a no-pets policy, a letter signed by a licensed clinical mental health counselor of Genesis Behavioral Health said she recommended a cat for her patient to reduce anxiety and depression and he ruled against eviction.

Genesis Clinical Operations Officer Celia Gibbs said Wednesday that her agency "is sometimes asked if (it) will write a letter and if we feel that it's appropriate, we will."

"It's mainly cats," said Gibbs who added that she thinks the number of letters Genesis has written is less than an handful.

"If a client comes to us and says this is a service animal, we respect this," she said.

Western Carolina University Professor of Psychology and author Hal Herzog, Ph.D said yesterday that the above case appears to be legitimate use of a emotional service animal but added that the scientific evidence supporting their use and effectiveness is inconsistent and unproven.

"The clinical trial data is not nearly as strong as some in the media suggest," he said. "If we make medical claims other than the placebo effect, we should hold them to the same scrutiny as medication."

He said there are no real national certifications and the ones that appear on-line are frauds, many of which he has reported as such to the federal government.

Herzog also said the proliferation of the "fake" service animal industry, primarily over the Internet, is angering those who specialize in the field — especially those who train dogs for legitimate fields as diverse as seeing-eye and hearing dogs to the blind and deaf to those who train them for high-level police and national security purposes.

"What the fakes are doing is not a legitimate field and they're furious," he said.

Technically, and according to attorney James J. MacDonald, who was writing for Working Like a Dog which is a Website for support of people with service animals, the U.S. Department of Justice rules on assistance dogs, which went into effect on March 15, 2011, say only dogs (and miniature horses in some cases) can qualify as "service" animals.

"'Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained' will not qualify," he wrote.

In addition, he said the dog must be specifically trained to work or perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability. McDonald also stated that the dog must be trained to assist the person with their disability or illness.

In New Hampshire, the Legislature passed a law (RSA 167-D:8) that became effective at the beginning of this year that said that a person who fits an animal with false equipment or tags or who represents an animal as a service animal is unlawful. The statute also strengthens the law that prohibits interfering with a legitimate service animal.

According to the Disability Rights Center, people with emotional disabilities have a right to have an animal in housing as long as the housing unit is owner-occupied and no more than three units, a written request is given to the landlord to waive the no-pets policy, and a letter from a medical professional supports the need for a service animal.

In April, the ABC News magazine 20/20 aired a story about how many people use these services as a way to be able to avoid paying extra fees to airlines to be able to travel with their dogs and to be able to bring them into restaurants and shops.

A rules change in 1988 from the U.S. Department of Transportation changed the rules surrounding service animal, paving the way for a more adaptive policy that some have found a way to take advantage of.

Canine Companions for — an agency that provides information and support to people who have service animals — has started a campaign to rally people against what it calls "service dog fraud". "When untrained pets behave badly, the people who actually need assistance dogs wind up suffering the most," reads its home page of the Internet. It asks people to pledge to stop abusing service animal registry sites, saying it diminishes the people who truly need their service dogs to perform actions that most people take for granted.

As to how effective owning a pet can be to assuage loneliness, depression and anxiety, Herzog said sometimes pets can create the opposite effect.

He said he gave a speech recently and asked the people in the room who were afraid or who didn't like a pet that belonged to a friend or a family member to raise their hands. "About one-third of them raised their hands," he said.

Herzog said he can think of one couple where conflict over their dogs led them to divorce and another case where a woman who relocated to a new city bought a dog so she wouldn't be lonely but never bonded with it.

He said people want to believe that pets make them less lonely, less anxious or less depressed but the data isn't there.

"The actual evidence doesn't match the hype," he said.

In closing, Herzog said that dogs and cats can ruin or enhance a person's life and people should take all of those factors into consideration before considering one.